Words by Sean Jansen.
The alarm went off. Bloodshot eyes opened to grab my headlamp and click it into gear. Clothes are loosely pulled on, backpack is shouldered, trail shoes are laced, and a quick glance at the map illuminates the task at hand. The time is 1.30AM. The light emanating paints the trail faintly while the near full moon lends a hand. Miles of trail climbing 5,700 feet are ahead with nothing but a headlamp and a map to guide the way. The destination, San Gorgonio Peak. Southern California’s highest point and a 9.4 mile one way trail to the top. In the dark.
I have been in a conundrum for most of my life. I grew up on the coast as a surfer, yet decided in recent times to move to the mountains to fulfil my other passions in life. Hiking and peak bagging being some of them. But with the pull of the ocean still as strong as ever, it is a whirlwind of emotions to decide to chase a swell or tag a peak, often coinciding with weather at the same time.
But the geography of Southern California offered a combination and an irresistible opportunity that my ADHD couldn’t control. An alpine environment towering to 11,499 feet all the while being a stone's throw away from the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t help but think it was possible to scale the mountain while also having the time to go surfing in a single day.
I couldn’t help but think it was possible to scale the mountain while also having the time to go surfing in a single day
Fulfilling my two favourite hobbies that I never imagined could be enjoyed together within a 24-hour period. Would it be possible to hike the highest point in Southern California while also being able to surf its most famous wave, Trestles, in a single day?
While researching, mathematically it made sense. I could wake pre-dawn and begin hiking up to the peak with a headlamp and get to the summit by sunrise. While having enough time to hike down, drive two hours through traffic to the coast and surf around sunset. Simple enough with my hiking speed mapped out and daylight hours given, no obstacles should come up, right?
Wrong. Obstacle number one; forest closure. A recent nearby fire had closed off the trailhead access that I needed to hike to the summit. There are a couple of trails that link to the summit, but none were this short. But, the fire subsided! And the trailhead was open again a few weeks later. But now with the weather changing, this posed yet another threat to the day.
Snow blanketed the mountain and nearby peaks a few days prior to the hike. Great. Luckily, the snow only lasted a day at elevation and melted shortly after. But now, I've got an ever-decreasing window of weather for the mountain, coupled with the first few south swells to hit Trestles, my odds were getting stacked against me and time was beginning to tick out. But then, a window presented itself. There was a small pulse of long period south-southwest swell set to hit San Clemente with some head high waves on a weekday with clear and cloudless conditions on San Gorgonio. It's on.
While checking multiple swell charts to get the exact forecast needed, coupled with refreshing weather channels to get the most accurate weather forecasts for the mountain, the day was decided and the car was packed. That... wasn’t the last obstacle for the trip. Nope.
You need a permit to hike San Gorgonio and also need a pass to park in the trailhead parking lot. While the car was already packed and the key had turned the ignition to start my car, I did a bit of quick research and realised that there are only a certain number of permits each day. Ugh. Luckily there were enough slots open for me to get my permit two days before my planned hike.
Finally, everything was in place and my car was loaded with a mass of gear. From surf wax to hiker poles, wetsuit to down jacket, and everything in between. All packed, now it was up to the alarm to get this thing started...
The dark morning was cool and I could see my breathe for most of the hike. The headlamp never faltered and my lungs surprisingly handled the altitude well with each step in elevation. Above tree line, the headlamp was far from necessary, as the moon shot down rays of light bright enough to even journal if desired. But no scribbles on a piece of paper could fully describe the sheer beauty and surprise of this alpine environment less than a two hour drive from the Pacific Ocean.
With my timing of the hike working to near perfection, I made it to the summit with 45 minutes to spare before the first rays of sun were to even crest the horizon. Quickly unloading my pack, I grabbed all the layers I could to shield myself from the cold and brisk wind and did my best to make coffee with my portable stove, I sat back, and huddled around cold granite stones.
With the sun rising, I was buzzing. Hues of colour blasted the landscape and a summit cone painting the foreground amidst the setting moon. The cold wind was a sobering reminder for the need to begin making my way down, where anther cup of coffee was granted at the car for stage two of the day's adventure; hitting the coast.
The hike down was just as exciting as the hike up, in that, it seemed like a different landscape altogether. Much of the dark and moonlit hues of what I remembered on the way up were painted very differently in my mind to what the sun exposed them as. With a three hour decent to the car, a mad dash through traffic finally gave sight to the ocean and San Clemente. The home of Trestles and a calm and clean Pacific Ocean with buoys reading 3ft@15 seconds of Southern hemisphere swell at one of the most famous waves on the planet. With three hours of daylight to spare.
With total mileage for San Gorgonio coming in at 18.8 miles, the last thing people would think of doing the rest of the day is go and hike more. But in order to get to Trestles, it is a one-way, mile and a half walk to get to the break. Surprisingly, I felt great and possibly I was buzzing on the endorphins of the sunrise summit and the success of the day despite my doubts. But rounding the corner on the old Highway 101, a glassy peak peeled by undisturbed and a 100-yard walk to the beach ensued; a surf until the sun set below the horizon.
I was actually a little stiff standing up on that first wave. But with each wave I loosened and felt I had accomplished arguably the most physically demanding and rewarding journey of my life. Looking around at the other surfers in the lineup, mildly proud at the fact that none of them likely did anything remotely close physically to what I had done, gave me a sense of accomplishment.
With 10,000,000 plus people that call Southern California home, not one of them stood on the summit with me that morning
Growing up in San Clemente, I never would have thought, right in my backyard, I could climb to an alpine environment above 10,000 feet. And never did I assume it was possible to do so while surfing a world class wave the same day.
I shared the lineup with just a few other surfers but with each wave caught, I began to drift. The further I drifted with each wave, the further away I got from other surfers. And with that it granted me reflection on the day and the astounding thought that in the 10,000,000 plus people that call Southern California home, not one of them stood on the summit with me that morning, and only a small handful shared the lineup in the ocean with me that afternoon.
With the raw stiff feeling of my face whipped by arctic alpine wind and getting sun burnt from the rays bouncing off the sunset ocean, I dwelled on a couple of things; one -- how the heck did I get so burned and two, the fact that my body somehow held up to low oxygen alpine bliss and then performed in salt encrusted ocean power. Reminiscing on just how magical Southern California is.
I have been fortunate to go all over the world to chase remote and perfect waves while also scaling some of the worlds great mountain peaks and alpine environments, but little did I know that both of those rewards can be achieved not only in the populated corner of Southern California, but also in a single day.